China in Islam: Turki Views from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Rian Thum, Loyola University New Orleans
Mausoleum of Afaq Khoja, Kashgar. 2005. Photo by Rian Thum.
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Abstract

This article questions dominant understandings of “China,” “Islam,” and the relationship between the two. It does so by uncovering an alternative understanding of China, one held by a group of people living within the Qing Empire and, later, the Republic of China: the Turki-speaking Muslims of Altishahr, known today as Uyghurs. Turki manuscript sources depict China as a distant and distasteful power, as a khanate in the Inner Asian tradition, and as a city synonymous with its ruler, characterized above all else by its rejection of Islam, yet vulnerable to conversion by charismatic Sufis. This notion of China, it is argued, is no more culturally determined than the predominant understanding of China that undergirds most scholarly studies of China, and no less enlightening. And yet Altishahri and other Islamic perspectives have been excluded from our notion of China, largely through a dependence on the concept of “syncretism.” As an alternative to the syncretism approach to cultural interchange, the article advocates for a greater focus on overlapping networks of shared meaning. Applied to the Altishahri case, this approach gives a sense of what is lost in the privileging of Islam and China as dominant categories, and shows the distortions involved in bounding these categories.

Keywords: Islam, China, syncretism, Uyghur